Irony in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

Published 17 Jan 2017

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the archetypal bildungsroman, because it is argued that the novel, first published in 1794, has spawned the genre itself. This type of novel describes the growing pains of the protagonist. It usually eschews plot, and instead concentrates of the key experiences of by which the protagonist learns through his errors and gradually arrives towards maturity. A crucial aspect in the composition of such a novel is in the use of irony. The author is obliged to put the protagonist in compromising situations. Neither should the effect be comic, but instead the aim should be for irony. Such irony is termed pedagogic. It is as if the author has placed himself in the position of pedagogue, who customarily puts his pupils in confusion, bewilderment, or shame.

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It works on the philosophy that one only learns through error, and that there is no linear and straightforward approach to education. The pedagogue allows his pupils to err only because he is there to correct them. Goethe’s use of irony in the novel has, however, more dimensions of significance. At one level he believes in committing error, but in another he does not. So, in the end of the novel we discover that Wilhelm Meister does not encounter life in a spontaneous way, but instead is secretly guided by an arcane order, who are directed by the precepts of Freemasonry. It reflects a contradiction in the outlook of Goethe, which in turn emerges from the contradiction inherent in the German Enlightenment, of which Goethe was a leading figure.

To understand all the shades of irony in the novel we need to consider the nature of Aufklarung, or the German Enlightenment. It was largely a reaction against the French Enlightenment, which idolized reason and the straightforward application of science in all areas. The German reaction, on the other hand, emphasized feeling and the human element, which is stifled by the strictures of logic, and must have recourse to the imagination and error. The Aufklarung was indeed precursor to the Romantic Movement, a wider and more lasting phenomenon. Though the German idealists thought themselves as champions of human emotion, they are rationalists in the final analysis.

The only thing that can be said in favor of German idealism is that its rationalism was more complex and structured than that of the French, and therefore was able to cope better with the human situation. For example, when coming to consider what genius is, Goethe differed from the French idea that it could be defined exactly, and therefore one could strive towards it purposefully. Goethe opined that genius is not imitable. Instead one comes to it through self discovery, and is shaped by inpidual experience in unpredictable ways. But pure unpredictability is unpalatable to Goethe, just as it would be to any German idealist, because the philosophy is strictly rational at heart. This is the inner contradiction described earlier.

Therefore, Goethe does not allow Wilhelm Meister to interact with the outer chaos. Instead there are wise men secretly placed in his midst, who make sure that he commits the “random mistakes”. The Abbe, who is chief manipulator of Wilhelm Meister’s education, practices a principle of “delayed intervention”, which implies that the full negative impact of error takes hold on the character, and before the point where hope is abandoned.

Therefore, irony in the novel works at multiple levels. At one level it is explicit, which is the irony of the author reacting to the normal course of events, pointing to the immature errors of the protagonist. But there is also irony working at a higher and more subtle level, in which the authorial voice provides hints that there is a larger agenda taking place, unbeknownst to the protagonist. There is also another level of irony, which we may describe as ‘strangeness’, explained shortly. All these agendas are seamlessly interweaved into what appears on the surface to be lucid and clear prose.

In order to understand the irony of strangeness, we consider Goethe’s prose style. Clarity of prose is characteristic, as we find in The Sorrows of Werther. Goethe believed that nature must be recorded with complete honesty. But as the consummate artist he is always intensely conscious of the aesthetic vision. It was a marriage of art and science that he advocated as a general philosophy, and it is widely known that he carried the same approach into his scientific investigations. As a part of his investigation into plants, he notices that the tree trunk has two levels of structure. One is that of a straightforward advance skywards; the other is the ring structure that builds itself around the axis.

The concentric structure is part of the “strangeness” of the plant, and represents the aesthetic plane by which the plant structures itself. In his novelistic prose Goethe introduces this artistic element through the author’s higher awareness that random events are not entirely random, but instead has an aesthetic quality that goes towards the formation of character. Thus, we are not only told that Wilhelm’s blabbering on about his puppet theatre has bored Marianne to sleep, but we are also told that it is lucky that he fails to notice it, as if his error must be compounded for it to take its entire effect as a corrective. This is the “strangeness” which usually surrounds the characters of Goethe as an aura, and is a pervasive presence in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

The irony that exists in the first six books is most likely to be missed on the first reading. It could easily be read as a normal bildungsroman in the modern sense, one which contains no hidden agenda and simply relates the learning experiences of the protagonist. Wilhelm comes from a merchant family, and his father is eager for him to enter business, and frowns on his attachment to the theatre. Wilhelm’s obsession partly stems from his infatuation for the actress Marianne, who puts up with him despite being annoyed by his boyhood craze for the puppet theatre. But when it appears one day that Marianne has betrayed him in favor of a more mature lover, he quits the theatre and decides to comply with father’s desire and enter business after all.

However, on his way to the city he becomes involved with a troupe of actors, which accepts him as guide and mentor, and so he opts to remain among them. This is the beginning of a picaresque existence for Wilhelm, and through his travels he comes into contact with many others, who are his engagements on his road to maturity. This part forms the bulk of the book, and in this part we are not overly conscious of any imposed designs on his life. Towards the end he does however begin to suspect that certain events are not entirely natural, because he has comes into contact with certain people who seem to take undue attention in his affairs. In Book Seven it is revealed that these people belong to the Society of the Tower, a Masonic organization that believes in secretly guided humanism.

The final two books are thus of a completely different nature. At the end of Book Seven Wilhelm enters the sacred precinct of the Tower itself and ceremoniously obtains his Certificate of Apprenticeship, by which he enters into the fold of the Society.He even discovers the existence of a scroll in which his entire life had been recorded by his mentors. In the final book we see Wilhelm as a mature inpidual, and we are no more concerned with his education. The final book concerns itself mostly with the niceties of the Society’s humanistic philosophy.

Much is revealed in the final two books, so we are able to see the ironic situations in which Wilhelm had persisted most of the time. For example Wilhelm finds out that a certain Felix, whom he had accepted into the troupe of actors as an underling, was indeed his own son by Marianne, and that Marianne had remained faithful to him after all. The Society had so arranged it that his son be reunited with the father. A particularly significant moment in the course of Wilhelm’s leaning experiences was his success in staging the play Hamlet with his troupe. It was the success of this play that changed the fortune of the troupe, and was instrumental in Wilhelm’s staying on with them, while abandoning his father’s plans for his career in the city.

What Wilhelm had initially supposed to be entirely the fruits of his own talent, and some luck, now turns out to be intricately planned by the Society. The production had been in danger of being abandoned because the ghost in the play was not available. But at the last moment the ghost does appear, and the play continues to a rapturously successful conclusion. As it is revealed later, the ghost was none other than the Abbe, the father figure among the members of the Society. There are many levels of significance to be read in this situation. As spiritual father to Wilhelm, the Abbe has appeared at the most propitious moment to guide the son in the right direction.

As Jarno, another guiding mentor reveals to Wilhelm later on, the play itself was chosen for him because the situation of Hamlet matched so much his own. Indeed, the reason why Wilhelm had played the role of Hamlet to such perfection is also revealed to him now. More than native talent, it is because he was already tuned into the psychological frame of the character, because the circumstances of his life has paralleled that of Hamlet. It is because of this astonishing similarity he has momentarily lost himself in the character, and the performance was really outpouring of his own heart (Goethe 2004, p. 435).

The success of his performance, and of the play itself, was instrumental in building his self-confidence, and thus went a long way towards his process of maturation. Once all this is revealed to us we marvel at the extent to which the Society has penetrated into the life of Wilhelm, and has manipulated his destiny towards a particular end. Indeed, we begin to suspect that his mentors had in mind the play Hamlet when they took on the task of engineering his life. For example, Hamlet abandons Ophelia, only to discover after her death that she has always been faithful to him. This parallels Wilhelm’s relationship with Marianne.

Again, like Hamlet he leave home, gets involved with actors, and generally suffers bouts of skepticism about life. The Society has so designed it that he comes to a climactic point of self-discovery through his sympathetic portrayal of Hamlet on stage. In a second reading of the novel we are able to appreciate the intricate levels of irony that is packed into the prose that point towards the designs of the Society, that which was largely missed in the first reading.

In conclusion, irony is seen to function in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at various levels, all designed to highlight the importance of experience in the formation of character and maturity. At the most elementary level is pedagogic irony, that employed by the novelist in the normal course in order to highlight the immaturity of the protagonist. At another level, there is the irony of ‘strangeness’, which is characteristic of Goethe, who believed that the aesthetic sensibility should always infuse the practice of art.

But the most pronounced irony comes from the fact that we are not explicitly told about the secret designs of the Society of the Temple, who are monitoring and manipulating the events in the life of Wilhelm, so that he acquires maturity in exact accordance with their particular humanist philosophy. The last kind of irony is only apparent on a second reading, after the designs of the Society have been revealed to us in the final two books.


Goethe J W V. (2004). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

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